I have been in a happy open relationship for three years. Every now and then, when I’m meeting someone new and the topic of my boyfriend comes up, they will say something like, “What kind of guy would let you do that?” or “I could never do that!” or — the worst — “I don’t see how that’s a real relationship.” People love to invalidate open and non-monogamous relationships by saying they’re just “glorified friendships” or “cheating by a different name.” I’ve heard all the accusations, and I’m quite fond of the “glorified friendships” one — my partner is, first and foremost, my best friend.
Queer people, in general, are more familiar with non-traditional and non-exclusive romantic setups, but I’m still asked often (via my sex advice blog and elsewhere) how to “open up” a monogamous relationship, usually by LGBTQ+ folks. It’s easier to approve of the idea of non-monogamy than it is to put it into practice. Many people have asked me how to “become okay with it,” or they themselves want to open the sexual boundaries they have with their partner and they don’t know how to communicate that.
Opening up a monogamous relationship is hard — in fact, I think the jump from monogamous to non-monogamous happens more easily from relationship to relationship, as it’s hard to make this transition in tandem with someone else. But it’s certainly not impossible, and I know many long-term couples who started monogamous before deciding they wanted more. You can do it!
The word “monogamy” defines sex — nothing else. Monogamous couples only have sex with each other. Sex outside a monogamous relationship is considered “cheating.”
The term “non-monogamy” also only has to do with sex. It defines a range of relationships with different sexual rules, boundaries, and agreements, each one different from the other. “Cheating” and “infidelity” can still happen in a non-monogamous relationship, as there are endlessly different ways to do non-monogamy. But generally speaking, non-monogamous relationships permit some sex outside the relationship.
Some non-monogamous couples play with thirds and have thrilling threesomes. Other non-monogamous couples play with outside partners individually — you may have sex with your special person, or your special people, and your partner may have sex with theirs. Sometimes non-monogamous couples make allowances for sex outside the relationship only with certain people or in certain situations (on business trips, on vacation, whatever).
And some non-monogamous couples have no sexual restrictions — you can do what you like, when you like, with or without your partner’s knowledge. I call these relationships “open,” and this is the kind of relationship I have. An “open” relationship is different from a “non-monogamous” one, as being fully open is only one version of non-monogamy. If non-monogamy was a scale, with monogamy on one end (no sex with anyone else), “open” would sit at the other end. Most non-monogamous couples, in my experience, fall somewhere on that scale — few are completely open.
There are great books to read about non-monogamy. I recommend The Ethical Slut by Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton. Designer Relationships: A Guide to Happy Monogamy, Positive Polyamory, and Optimistic Open Relationships by Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson, and — if I may be so bold — my own upcoming book, My Love Is a Beast: Confessions, which will publish this October (hey, I want to sell books!).
There are also, of course, many great articles online and websites you can read on the subject. Do research and gain a basic knowledge of non-monogamy and non-traditional relationships. You’ll stumble into an online culture of progressive people who use therapy and mental health terms a lot — many of the people leading the discourse on non-monogamy are therapists.
One of your best resources will be other people and couples who’ve found a version of non-monogamy that works for them. Ask them about how they communicate, how they deal with feelings of jealousy (more on that later), how they started being non-monogamous, and so on.
Doing this does not mean something’s wrong! Talking to a therapist is a great way to keep things right! If you have it in your mind that you’d like to expand the sexual parameters of your relationship but don’t know how to bring this up with your partner, a good professional can help facilitate that dialogue.
Your partner may react strongly, but too-strong reactions are, in my opinion, a red-flag sign of emotional immaturity. If they lash out, judge you, shame you, accuse you, or act jealous and resentful at the mere idea that you might want sex with someone else, you’re probably not dating someone with the emotional maturity or communicative skills necessary to have a non-monogamous relationship, and you should decide if you want to stay with them.
I understand this situation is usually not so simple as I present it here. I know you love them. And besides love, many couples have kids, property, intertwined finances, even intertwined businesses. I receive many questions from people at this stage: they love their partners and have talked about non-monogamy with them, and their partners just can’t do it, so they’re forced to choose between their needs and their love.
This is a brutal and painful situation, one nearly every non-monogamous (and non-monogamy-curious) person has been in. Nevertheless, I almost recommend breaking up — even with kids, even with shared properties and finances. In fact, I can fathom almost no version of this situation that justifies staying together.
I don’t align myself with the idea of “relationships are work” when that work involves a substantial degree of self-denial. I think sexual self-denial almost always leads to bitterness, resentment, and toxicity that invariably erodes a happy relationship. I do not think divorce is a bad thing — I actually think it is, in most cases, inevitable. People are not meant to stay together forever. We outgrow each other, discover new needs and wants, and it’s important to learn when to let go as kindly and peacefully as possible.
Many couples start with the “rule of threesomes,” as I call it — the rule that you can only play with others together. This is unfortunate because threesomes, contrary to porn and popular culture, are, in my experience, often difficult and emotionally jarring experiments to carry out.
When sex researcher Justin Lehmiller polled people for his book Tell Me What You Want, he found that threesomes are one of the most popular fantasies humans have. But I’ve never had a threesome that measured up to the idealized fantasy of a threesome. It’s hard to divide one’s attention evenly between two people, and if emotions are raw and confidence is shaky, it’s easy to feel left out.
All that said, you will probably not want to start with one-on-one hookups with outside people. A threesome allows you to experience outside sex together and makes you equally implicated — you see what they see. Threesomes feel a step closer to monogamy and less like cheating.
You probably won’t love your feelings after the first step. Even if you have a successful threesome — which is hard to do — you will probably still feel guilty. You may decide together, “Let’s not do that again.” I urge you to give it another shot. And another. And another. Treat stepping into non-monogamy like stepping into sex for the first time — those first experiences are often messy and difficult, but they do get better.
Everyone has different degrees of non-monogamy they’re naturally comfortable with, and everyone develops comfort with non-monogamy at different speeds. You might be ready for one-on-one sex with a stranger at a bar while your partner isn’t quite there yet.
Sorry, but in that situation, you’ll have to make a compromise, and discussion is needed. And since a bar is not the place to have that discussion, that hookup will not happen — you need to go home, and once you’re sober (the next day), tell your partner what you wanted to happen with the stranger at the bar. Ask what a middle-road compromise would look like for them. Ask what situations your partner is willing to try, even if they are not 100 percent comfortable with them. Remind them — and remind yourself — that no one is completely comfortable with sex the first time they try it. Comfort doesn’t come before action — it comes after, with ample practice.
You’re not supposed to know. You may think you’re ready to be fully open until you try it and realize you actually want some restrictions. It’s okay to not be certain — no one is. If you’re not sure how you feel about something, it’s better to say so than “yes” or “no.”
It can be fun — and hot — to confess your sexual bucket list to your partner, learn their sexual bucket list, and create a bucket list together. If you’re new to non-monogamy, it could be fun to say, “Hey, let’s set a goal of going to a sex party together sometime in the next year!”
You probably know what you don’t want your partner to do with someone else, at least right now, but if you don’t have the established, honest rapport necessary to express that, that knowledge is useless to you. Your partner needs to know how you feel — no one can read your mind.
I know a non-monogamous gay couple with one hard rule: never spend the night with someone else. I think that’s a great rule. Sex is sex, but sleeping together is intimacy — the kind of intimacy I treasure with my partner, not some random guy. Waking up in the morning with someone feels too much like a substantial thing even when it’s not. Come up with very specific rules like this that work for you.
Sit down together (over drinks, dinner, at a park, wherever) and discuss Friends, Family, Fucking, Finances, and Feelings.
Friends: Are you spending enough time with your friends? Too little? Does your partner have any friends you just don’t like? Family: How’s your relationship with yours? What does your partner’s family think of you? What do you think of them? Fucking: Getting enough sex? Too much sex? Are there sex journeys you want to take? Any trust or jealousy issues? Finances: You must talk about money. How are your finances? How is theirs? Lastly, Feelings: Do you have any grievances to air? What do you think is working? Is anything not working? Do you feel ready for the next steps? What even are the next steps?
These can be difficult topics for any couple, which is why you need to schedule the time and mental space to talk about them. This long conversation is just a ritual, something you have to do. And it can be a great conversation! But the rule of it is total honesty with no repercussions, so this can also be a scary conversation, especially if you think something you say might end your relationship. If it does, that’s okay — there are worse ways to break up than during an honest conversation with each other.
Wait for your partner to finish speaking. Listen and absorb instead of just waiting for your chance to speak. Allow moments of silence in conversations. When you’re in an argument, stop, breathe, check in with yourself, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?”
I believe the art of pausing is how one masters patience — and pausing, for most people, is hard to do. If you’re not a patient person (I’m not), I recommend daily meditation with a guided app like Headspace or Calm.
The short, oversimplified “key” to all relationships is often said to be “communication.” But communication is not an easy skill. It must be learned, broken down, divided into its components. What makes a good communicator? Patience, yes, but also: honesty, directness.
Good communication is not so much the art of tact as it is the art of just telling the truth — everyone you date would rather you be blunt than silver-tongued. It’s always better to give an undoctored and undecorated truth to your partner, especially when sharing your desires, feelings, and wants.
The driving motivation behind wanting to open your monogamous relationship is a desire to serve your own sexual needs. People might shame you for that. Your partner might shame you for that (if they do, leave them). You are allowed to get everything you want in this life and can stop viewing relationships the old-fashioned way — at exercises in exclusion, avoidance, and self-denial. There’s nothing impressive and certainly nothing romantic about rejecting the rest of the world for one person.
If you fuck enough people besides your partner, you’ll eventually find “special people” — fuck buddies who would be candidates for a more official relationship, or who you simply want to see again. (If you and your partner mutually decide that you should pursue these people as official relationships, congrats, you’re polyamorous.)
It is important to talk about this possibility and not be too afraid of it. My partner and I use a term from the polyamory world — I call him my “primary,” and I am his. We acknowledge that “secondary” and even “tertiary” partners might come into our lives and we do not fear this possibility because we have the communication skills to explore it together.
I’ve heard some people say that they don’t have the confidence for non-monogamy. There exists this idea that only ultra-confident, thick-skinned, non-emotional people are suited for non-monogamous relationships. That’s bullshit.
My partner and I are very sensitive men, and I know other non-monogamous couples that struggle, as we all do, with various insecurities, body dysmorphias, jealousies, and fears. These are human feelings. There’s no shame in being jealous.
But jealousy can become toxic if you don’t talk about it. It can grow into bitterness and resentment. When you tell a partner you feel jealous, you’ll find that the jealousy becomes disarmed — it no longer has teeth in it and will immediately feel less burdensome. Jealousy as a confession can be sweet and intimate, and if your partner is a good one, they will respect your feelings and recognize that you need some affirmation at that moment.
A lot of people have asked me some variation of this question: “If you can have sex with anyone you want, what’s special about being with your boyfriend?”
My answer is always something like, “No one else is him.”
If I measured his value strictly on sex quality — on the physical intensity of fucking — I’d readily admit that I’ve had better sex elsewhere, and he was certainly had better sex with others than he’s had with me. But I’m not really with him for the high-altitude sex, although our sex has only gotten better and better. I’m with him for all the other hours, the ones where we’re shopping together, watching TV, cooking, or not doing much of anything at all. And the hours in bed, holding him, are irreplaceable on this earth. They could not be replicated in all the billions of people out there, because there’s only one him. Intimacy is not sex, because you can’t have it with just anyone, and intimacy is what you want to cultivate and tend to in a good love story.